6 November 2014
A (wet) samba in Sao Paulo
The weather looks like it will intervene in dramatic style for this weekend’s Brazilian Grand Prix. Heavy rain and thundery storms are forecast for all three days of the race weekend. The dance for the drivers’ title, it seems, will resume in the rain. Recalling previous wet races at the Autodromo Carlos Pace in Interlagos, such as in 2003, the track quickly becomes treacherous, with aquaplaning a problem, especially in Sector 1 of the lap where rivers often run across the circuit in wet conditions. The 2003 running saw plenty of spins and accidents as driver struggled to keep their cars on the track. In all, there were seven retirements that day due to drivers spinning off and/or colliding. We are likely to be in for a real rollercoaster again in the 2014 event.
Sector 1 of the lap is made up of fast corners, a steep elevation change after Turn 1 down into the Senna Esses as well as the overtaking zone under braking for Turn 1. The slow-speed 60mph left-hander of Turn 1 acts as funnel, especially at the start of the race, when the 18 remaining cars charge into the corner. Contact in Turn 1 on Lap 1 is almost an inevitability. Turn 2 swiftly follows and then the track opens out into the high-speed 160mph Turn 3. Cars with a stable aerodynamic platform and high-speed downforce will be best-placed to launch off Turn 3 and on to the 200mph straight.
Sector 2 begins with an overtaking zone! The cars scream down into Turn 4 and those within a second of their rivals ahead can use DRS to attempt an overtake under braking for Turn 4. It’s a short squirt up to the 150mph Turn 5, although this corner is perilous in the wet. Turns 6 and 7 are relatively fast, around 130mph, but are followed by the slow-speed and twisty Turns 8, 9 and 10. The apex to Turn 8 is unsighted and Turn 9 is cambered downhill, making these tricky corners to get right. The critical characteristics needed for a good time through Sector 2 are low-speed grip and traction and supple suspension to minimise the bumps.
Sector 3 is all about engine grunt. Power is everything in the uphill dash from the exit of Turn 12 to when the drivers hit the brakes for Turn 1. Getting a good exit off Turn 12 (Juncao) is vital in order to help launch the car up the hill. Stick close behind the car in front and you can slipstream past into Turn 1. Sao Paulo’s comparatively high altitude (2,500 feet above sea level) will mean that powertrains will have to work harder to pull the cars up the hill. Having said that, a wet race will mean that top-speeds in the final sector will be slower than normal, likely easing the burden on power units and fuel consumption rates.
Other than the weather, the other wildcard this year is the track itself, which has been completely resurfaced. The new asphalt surface, which has experienced no running, is likely to be more slippery than usual. This, along with the wet conditions, will test drivers’ reflexes and car handling abilities to the max. They will earn their money in Interlagos.
The great leveler
Rain is said to be the great performance leveler in F1. Rain opens the door to a good result for the little guys as the more favoured runners are more likely to be caught out in wet rather than in dry conditions. In 2014, however, not even heavy rain at the Japanese Grand Prix enabled the rest of the field to catch Mercedes; Hamilton finished almost 30 seconds ahead of third-placed man Sebastian Vettel. Hamilton and Rosberg will very likely resume their private battle at the head of the field unless one or both of them get caught out by the weather in qualifying. Assuming Mercedes lock-out the front row again and get off the grid well, a real dice at the front is likely given the higher than usual chance of driver errors in the wet. The lead could change hands several times over the course of the race. Thinking back to the Japanese Grand Prix, what turned things round for Hamilton at Suzuka was the switch from full wet tyres to intermediate tyres as the wet track conditions eased. In short, Hamilton dealt with the relative loss of grip from the intermediate tyres on the still wet surface better than Rosberg did. After passing Rosberg on Lap 29, Hamilton set quicker times every lap until the race ended prematurely on Lap 44. In Brazil, if the track dries sufficiently for intermediate tyres to be fitted, there’s a good chance of this scenario repeating itself.
Aside from the Mercedes, I expect Red Bull to perform strongly at Interlagos. The Milton Keynes outfit have been best-in-class in Sector 2 of the Autodromo Carlos Pace for the last few years and they are likely to be strong in the middle sector again this season given that the RB10 has the best chassis in the field. The wet conditions will mean downforce is at a premium. Moreover, the need for power in Sector 3 will be somewhat reduced given slower-speeds in the wet, likely mitigating Red Bull’s main weakness. Williams have tended not to go so well in the wet or at twisty circuits, due to a lack of low-speed downforce, so they are likely to be hampered this weekend and particularly in Sector 2. Likewise, the downforce deficiencies of McLaren’s MP4-29 will surely make life difficult for Jenson Button and Kevin Magnussen too. That said, Button is a bit of a wet-weather specialist and in the rain, the driver is generally a bigger performance variable, so let’s not count the Briton out for a good result.
I expect Ferrari’s torrid season to continue in Brazil. Raikkonen was lapped at the last wet-weather race in Japan in October 2014, which doesn’t bode well for this event. 2015 cannot come soon enough for the Scuderia…